Paul Pierce may have reigned supreme, for one game anyway, but the underlying theme throughout game one in Toronto was the unassertive play of John Wall and Bradley Beal.
For the latter, it was expected. Beal's shortcomings are well documented — from his penchant to fire from midrange to his inability to effectively puncture a set defense — but against an aggressive scheme like the one he'll see in this series, those defects increase tenfold.
We pick up this possession late in the fourth with Washington needing a score to push the lead to a two-possession game (Greivis Vasquez would end up tying it seconds later). The play calls for Marcin Gortat to set a slip-screen at the top of the key in order to draw his man onto John Wall. As soon as his defender commits, he'll dart straight to the corner to spring Bradley Beal.
This is one way of simplifying Beal's reads. The Wizards made a conscious effort of having Beal curl towards the middle of the floor off a down-screen, and presenting him with three options. 1) Get into the lane if his man is trailing, 2) rise up for a jumper if his man gets screened off, or 3) deliver a pocket pass to the screener rolling to the rim. It may have seemed like overkill with the amount of times he tried and failed, but you can't blame the coaching staff.
For a team deploying Pierce at the 4, this is awful spacing to begin with. DeRozan doesn't even need to reposition himself to zone up the weak-side because Otto never makes it into the corner. Eventually he'll makes a basket cut, but it comes only after Beal begins his drive, and by then, there's no shot of Bradley delivering that pass. Had his cut come sooner, not only does he make himself available, but it forces DeRozan to make a decision. Does he protect against the cut, or stay home on Pierce?
Turns out it doesn't matter. DeRozan still digs down into the paint, and Pierce is left open. Again, had Otto's cut come sooner, it's more likely that Beal finds Pierce well before he picks up his dribble, but this is still a pass he should've made.
Here's the full sequence:
Beal simply had no feel for the defense yesterday. There were far too many instances where he didn't leverage Toronto's traps against them. Good ball handlers are decisive; they get the ball to their safety valve the moment they spring free off the screen. From there the big man can create a 3-on-2 situation along the backline of the defense; a weakness that has undoubtedly led to Toronto's free-fall.
The elephant in the room is Kevin Seraphin. Yes, he was productive in his outing, but why bring him back into the rotation now after it looked like you had settled into a playoff rotation last week? There's no excusing Beal for holding onto the ball when the correct play was right there in front of him, but would he make the same mistake if Nene is out there instead? Against a defense that is constantly rotating, you need multiple passers on the floor. The Wizards went long stretches into the second and third quarter with four bench players on the floor at once, only one of whom (Ramon Sessions) is capable of making smart decisions.
But back to the play. It's rare to see Valanciunas that far out on Beal. He's not very fleet of foot, and much like Amir Johnson now is (thanks to recurring ankle problems), has been asked to hang back in the lane in order to protect the rim. But he jumps out anyway, and it'll be interesting to see if the Raps continue to ratchet up the pressure when Beal is asked to create.
What follows is more of the same. Valanciunas will release as soon as Beal dribbles backward away from the trap, but gets drawn back onto Bradley seconds later, opening up a 19-footer from Seraphin that clanks off the side of the rim. Another opportunity to create a corner three squandered in favor of a mildly contested midrange jumper.
It isn't as if the Wizards were completely stymied by the defense though. Beal missed three 3-pointers without a defender within 6 feet of him, two of which came from the corners. Same can go for Wall too, who missed a few easy looks himself. And when they made quick decisions, they made Toronto pay.
Watch Wall quickly swing it back to Pierce on this 1-4 pick and pop:
And how Gortat creates an open jumper (that should've been a corner 3) with a short roll into the lane:
Toronto will make adjustments based on Saturday's game, but so will Washington, and the Wizards have the benefit of homecourt advantage now.